|A snapshot from an Australian marriage equality ad In Australia's federal Parliament, both houses rejected marriage equality this week. Why is Australia so backward about same-sex marriage and how is this being remedied?
In New Zealand, we have a unitary state, not a federal one. Australia is different, a weak federal state with strong state legislatures of its own, although territories can be overridden by the federal government in the context of the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory. State legislatures cannot. Moreover, Australia has far stronger American influence and higher levels of Christian religious observance than New Zealand. These have adversely affected Australian politics over the last twenty years.
While New Zealand undid most of the Muldoon era's social conservatism under successive Labour and National administrations, Australia still doesn't have a Bill of Rights, nor does it have an optimally proportional electoral system like our MMP- although several state legislatures have a Single Transferable Vote electoral system for lower and upper state assembly elections that is almost is good. By contrast, the predominant electoral system is the Alternative Vote/Preferential Voting system. This constitutional conservatism has hampered progressive political change over the last two decades as well.
The fault for its current backwardness is bipartisan. When a strong federal government is in power, the federal Opposition usually goes through several Leaders of the Opposition of its own, and worse still, there are formalised factions within both the Australian Labor Party and Liberal Party. These factions tend to be along philosophical and state lines.
In the case of the Liberals, the rot began with right-wing federal Prime Minister John Howard, whose conservatism was both fiscal and social. Under Howard, the Liberal Party started to resemble the US Republican Party more than the British Conservative Party, New Zealand National Party and Canadian Tories. It repealed Northern Territory euthanasia reform legislation in 1997, and in 2004, it amended the federal Marriage Act to firmly state that marriage was heterosexual only. Exacerbating that situation, the Liberals are also encumbered by a rural and social conservative National Party coalition partner.
Over time, the Liberal Party found itself hamstrung by a resurgent ALP Opposition as it steadily lost power in all Australia's state and territorial legislatures, until incumbency fatigue finally ended eleven years of Liberal-National Coalition misrule in 2008.
Unfortunately, factionalism had hamstrung the ALP and caused it to go through several Opposition leaders during this period- Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Kim Beazley again...and Kevin Rudd. Things would probably have been cleaner had Rudd not been such a disastrous leadership choice, but he was.
Rudd came from Queensland's authoritarian political culture and was a conservative Anglican. This meant that while there was slight progress on Aboriginal land rights concerns and asylum seeker issues, the same was not true when it came to renewed momentum on LGBT equality issues.
Thus, the ALP tacked to the right on the latter issues, and got badly out of step with mainstream international social democratic parties, like British and New Zealand Labour, the Canadian New Democrats, French Socialists and German Social Democrats, all of whom regard LGBT communities as legitimate and integral social constituencies. Part of the blame also has to be sheeted home to Australia's abnormally high levels of Catholic religious observance compared to other societies, and involvement of that denomination within the ALP. And moreover, Rudd's autocratic Queenslander style and inadequate strategic management skills damaged the federal and state ALPs. Eventually, in 2010, his Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, became Australia's first female federal Prime Minister- which should also tell us something, given that the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada had all crossed that particular bridge decades beforehand.
Unfortunately, Gillard had been brought up Baptist and although she continues to be unmarried herself, is opposed to same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, Howard era hack Tony Abbott, a conservative Catholic, is now Liberal Opposition leader- although undermined frequently by embittered Malcolm Turnbull, a 'small l liberal', his predecessor and future leadership aspirant. Meanwhile, Gillard is also facing subversion from within her own ranks by Rudd, her own disloyal predecessor.
And so, due to factionalism, abnormally high levels of Christian religious observance and conservative bipartisan leadership, the Australian marriage equality movement has suffered two setbacks in its federal parliament during last week, as the lower House of Representatives and its upper Senate both rejected marriage equality.
First, the House of Representatives voted voted 98-42 against the legislation on Tuesday, 17 September. On September 19, the Senate rejected a similar bill from ALP Senator Trish Crossin 26-41.
Fortunately however, this doesn't bind the states to follow the federal lead, and so Tasmania has drafted its own state marriage equality bill, and it has advanced through the lower Tasmanian State Assembly House, awaiting the verdict of the Legislative Council upper house. Tasmanian ALP Premier Lana Giddings has been strongly supportive of the measure. In New South Wales, there are similar moves afoot, and the NSW Liberal Premier has given state Liberal/National Coalition MPs a free conscience vote on the issue. Similar moves may be afoot in Victoria and Western Australia.
In 2010, Tasmanian LGBT rights stalwart Rodney Croome and Melbourne-based fundamentalist activist Bill Muehlenberg collaborated on a slender volume about the marriage debate in Australia.
Rodney cites Canada's successful litigation for same-sex marriage as one of his inspirations, and as an issue of equality, personal freedom and akin to anti-racist equality struggles. Indeed, Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the US Loving v Virginia case that struck down US bans on interracial marriage in the fifties supports same-sex marriage equality.
We are also starkly reminded that Australia has a pre-emptive discriminatory Marriage Act, unlike New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada. Marriage has practical, social and cultural benefits too, according to noted University of Massachuesetts lesbian economist M.V. Lee Badgett, who identified identifiable security as a stabilising influence for spouses and children as a tangible benefit. Rodney is also correct about the salutary effects of same-sex marriage equality on the reputation of the institution itself amongst heterosexuals and reminds us that the Christian Right said the same thing about other reforms, particularly spousal rape in our own context, as recently as thirty years ago. Same-sex marriage equality builds on earlier feminist and anti-racist reforms. And if the Christian Right wants to raise the issue of "religious freedom", what about faiths and denominations who are refused the right to preside over religious solemnisation of monogamous lesbian and gay relationships according to their tenets, as well as security for children brought up within same-sex-led families? I don't agree with Rodney's blanket condemnation of civil unions, though. Unlike him, I believe that they serve a useful tactical purpose as an interim compromise and securing most of the substantive rights and responsibilities related to relationship equality. It does seem to have liberalised public opinionin New Zealand as we now strive toward marriage equality proper.
On the other hand, I strongly agree with his comments about the need for a more robust Australian constitution and I wish he'd expanded on that.
Gritting my teeth, I waded into the mire of Muehlenberg's "rebuttal" and then his ridiculous diatribe against marriage equality. It was like wading into a time warp- the likes of Patricia Bartlett here spouted the same nonsense back in the eighties against homosexual law reform. I cannot believe a reputable mainstream Australian publishing house chose someone that mediocre to publicise the addled militant fundamentalist stance against marriage equality.
Muehlenbergresorts to facile conspiracy theory arguments about our "marketing" of our communities that results in a "santitised" public image and portrayal of our case for equality as just, while "stigmatising" our fundamentalist opponents like him.
He protests at Rodney's use of human rights discourse and claims that Australian federal and state governments are addressing LGBT relationship injustices. Predictably, he cites US Christian Right subcultural luminaries like Robert Knight (Family Research Council), tabloid 'journalist" Stanley Kurtz (Weekly Standard) and other such antigay activists as if they were credible, authentic and neutral sources.
Muehlenberg's nonsense is explicitly religious and engages in opportunist and anonymous citation of lesbian and gay opponents of marriage equality- so let's use liberal religious supporters of marriage equality to counter them.
Muehlenberg accuses us of trying to "undermine and destroy" families (only if they're violent, abusive and dysfunctional). Gay men are "promiscuous", he claims, relying on HIV/AIDS data. Nonsense. Gay men vary widely in our number and frequency of sexual partners and lesbians tend toward serial monogamy.
Some of us are polyamorists, but others are monogamous. Indeed, much the same diversity now exists amongst lesbians...and heterosexuals too, given the existence of unmarried cohabitation, effective contraception and divorce.
He opportunistically cites dated early lesbian and gay liberationists agit-prop from forty years ago to argue that our "real" objective is polyamory and zoophile (human/animal!) nuptials! Fundamentalist activists like Joseph Nicolosi (reparative therapy charlatan), Glen Stanton and Bill Maier (Focus on the Family) are cited as "family experts" and independent psychologists of "repute."
(Incidentally, someone hasn't told Muehlenberg, who cites temporary New Zealand 'exlesbian' Cherie Taylor in this polemic that Taylor is now back in the lesbian fold.)
Rodney must be congratulated for his intestinal fortitude under severe provocation from this disjointed and mendacious diatribe. He points out that many of Muehlenberg's "sources" are fundamentalist activists like David Blankenhorn (who now supports marriage equality) and wonders why the fundamentalist doesn't acknowledge that these figures have no professional standing. That may have something to do with the fact that professional organisations like the Australian Psychological Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association all support same-sex parenting.
I do hope that in a fit of desperation, Family First or the Conservative Party imports this ridiculous Muehlenberg figure across the Tasman to oppose marriage equality over here. I intend to contact Rodney, compliment him on the quality of an excellent argument for marriage equality in this volume, and do some digging about his adversary.
Australians for Marriage Equality: http://www.australianmarriageequality.com
Rodney Croome and Bill Muehlenberg: Gay Marriage: Sydney: Pantera Press: 2010. Craig Young - 23rd September 2012